/ Technology

Farewell to instruction manuals

instruction manual

Ever been utterly bemused by an instruction manual? Or bought a product that didn’t come with one at all? These days it seems we’re just expected to know how products work, but not all of us were born tech savvy…

As tech products and services become more and more sophisticated and complex, proper instructions and guidance written in plain English can help us get the best out of them.

That’s why it seems strange that manufactures don’t always do this. We’ve found from our testing, and from many of you, that some manuals just aren’t written in jargon-free, easy-to-understand plain English. The simple question is, why not?

Tested to instruction

Instruction manuals can seem rather old fashioned and many people just won’t have a need to even take them out of the box. But we know that there are still those of us that rely on them when they get stuck with their products.

We assess instruction manuals on some products as part of our testing to see how easy they are to set up and use. And we unearth some bizarre examples. For example, this clear-as-mud snippet is from an indoor TV aerial manual:

‘When interconnecting equipment and to get the best carrier to noise then place the digital terrestrial television set top box as the first item in the signal path followed by any video or satellite receiver.’

Umm OK…

Time to be clear

Sometimes, you may even find there’s no manual at all and instead you’re left to your own, ahem, devices. You may think that in this case people should just work it out for themselves, but that supposes they have a good enough technical ability to do this. Plus, it’s often the case that on-screen menus just aren’t clear enough, being littered with confusing instructions and language.

And then things can get even more complicated with permission warnings – the little boxes that pop up with apps or websites asking our permission to do this or that. If these important warnings are worded in a way that you don’t understand, how can you know what you’re actually agreeing to?

We’re currently investigating the instructions and guidance (or lack of) we get with our technology products and services. So, do you have any examples of confusing language used in tech product literature? What do you feel about the hard-copy manuals being replaced with on-screen instructions?

Do you still want hard-copy manuals?

Yes - I can't live without them (60%, 994 Votes)

Maybe - depends on if the manual is easy to find online (32%, 538 Votes)

No - think of the trees! (8%, 125 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,657

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Carol Millington-Pratt says:
14 March 2015

Be very very careful if you download an instruction manual from the internet. I did this for a microwave and installed a browser hijacker which I couldn’t remove. Fortunately, the February 2015 Which had the solution to this problem. Thank you, Which. I’ll be very careful in future

You are quite right to mention the dangers of downloading manuals from the Web. They are a major source of malware . They rely on peoples neediness to obtain information quickly with the innocuousness of what is being offered.

Unless it is from the manufacturers site treat these site with extreme caution. However some manufacturers require you to input your machine model production number before they give you access to information – Vax for instance.

As paper lasts and lasts unlike electrical devices like ereaders and tablets they really are more long term useful for those appliances that do last for years like good washing machines. So can we subscribers have an area of Which? storage space to store back-up copies of instructions in safe environment.?

An added reason to keep up the subscription : )

And if it were subscribers providing the legwork in scanning and uploading no great strain on Which? staff.

I frequently download manuals and other documents from websites and have never had a problem with malware, but I don’t use the Windows operating system.

barrie bendall says:
15 March 2015

Why is it taken for granted that everyone has a computer?It is not the case and nor should people who choose not to have one feel pressurised to do so.

If only on these grounds, and there are others as your e-mails make clear, devices should always come with written instructions.,

I agree with you Barrie about the marginalisation of computer-free personal functionality. A friend who does not have computer access explained that even people who choose or need to have paper bills from BT (and pay for them) only get a statement of the payment due. They are directed to the website to look at their call history and charges! And I have noticed myself that many organisations are making it increasingly impossible to find out how to contact them by post. Sorry, this has nothing to do with instruction manuals but it’s part of the cheese-paring, penny-pinching cost-cutting tendency that is making lives difficult but does not appear to translate into consumer benefits or lower prices – higher profits, perhaps.

Think of on-line Government and HMRC. I can see trouble ahead but I suspect people without computers or computer savvy will be directed to, and welcomed, by the CEO of the Citizens Advice Bureau[cracy] no matter how the independent CAB offices will be able to manage.

Sherbet says:
15 March 2015

I have to agree with the other comments about manuals for cameras. It is useless having these on a disc that is impossible to access whilst on holiday. If, like me, one only uses the camera a few times a year it is so handy to have a pocket sized manual to refer to as and when required. It is also very useful to have paper instruction manuals for all household electrical items such as TVs, Freeview boxes, etc.

Too right, Sherbet. Even though we have had our PVR for several years and use it daily, I still need to refer to the manual from time to time to look up certain features or to find the channel list updating sequence [it’s far from obvious in the on-screen menus]. I wouldn’t buy a new model without a manual. It’s like the cars-without-spare-wheels Conversation that we have been having on this site: We don’t need it every day but, when we do need it, we must have it.

Cho Cho San says:
15 March 2015

Having recently bought a Samsung TV, I was surprised to find that it did not come with an Instruction Manual. I was informed that I would be able to download one & print it from my PC; however I was not told that it contained 800+ pages!!!
As I am a silver surfer & not particularly pc savvy with the added disadvantage of an EXTREMELY slow broadband speed, a paper manual would be worth it’s weight in gold to me! Call me old-fashioned but new & up-to-date isn’t always better!

Paul says:
16 March 2015

We bought a camera with only a basic manual. We found a company in the UK which could supply an A5 spiral-bound manual. I will try to tell you the details tomorrow. An on-line search finds several such suppliers.

Hilary says:
16 March 2015

When will businesses realize that not everyone has, or is able to have, a computer directly accessing the internet, or have, (or not want to pay for what we will not use), a smartphone? Luckily I have usually been able to find a manual for an appliance on the manufacturers website by using the library computers, but the absolute mindset of ‘everyone knows this’, or ‘you have to go online to get this’ is extremely annoying.
Mind you, I do find some of the instructions written by someone whose first language is not English very funny, (ha-ha type).

We now have people posting comments in a four year old Conversation about the lack of printed instruction books.

What makes it even more confusing is that the same photo has been used in the introductions for both Conversations.

Always on the ball Wavechange, I’ve changed the picture 🙂

RichardC 58 today posted this in the other instruction book Conversation :

“On the subject of paper manuals, most of them are printed, in small format, on cheap paper which turns brown and crumbles when we save them. Compare them with sales brochures which are printed on glossy acid-free paper… ”

I’ve transpoerted it here because I think it’s a very good point and gives the lie to the supposed environmental justification for the absence of instruction manuals or for providing them n minimal form and survivability.

As a retired electronics engineer, I consider myself to be reasonably tech savvy! However, it is seldom obvious how to get at all the features of a device when they are buried several layers deep in a non-intuitive menu structure.

What amuses me most is the utterly absurd Chinglish that sometimes masquerades as instructions, as in your example above. As a part-time translator, I firmly believe you should only translate INTO your own language, not the other way round, however good you are at it.

The most annoying things about many of these ‘manuals’ are:

1) Idiotic ‘safety’ instructions, like telling you not to eat the batteries, that take up half the total text – totally disregarding the fact that a buffoon who might do this wouldn’t read the instructions anyhow!

2) The utter waste of paper (and space) when the same banal instructions appear in 57 different languages!

You can add to multi-language manuals the one-manual-for-all-variations type manuals too. The current User Manual for the Ford Fiesta is a nightmare. You can read several boring pages about how to do something with a feature in a Titanium model only to find that a few pages later another explanation for the Titanium X model because it is slightly different.

When you download the PDF version, why cannot it be a version-specific edition? It’s not like they have to rewrite and reprint different manuals for every version. Once someone has written the all-embracing manual that is printed and sent out with each car, they could simply edit them into version specific PDF downloads.

It goes for other devices like TVs or Bluray players. Print a manual for every version and language, but then edit them into language/device specific PDFs for download.

It’s not rocket science.

As a spritly late sixties pensioner, I find both printed manuals and on line ones are both useful, My wife however is not computer savvy at all and requires paper copies.

colin says:
24 April 2015

The last two cameras I have bought have no instruction manual.Go into search bar and seek out Old Time Cameras, they print out a small instruction manual for approx £12 which is printed from the disc(which they search for).Fantastic company with superb service

Before worrying about the manuals media we need to do something about the quality of the instructions. Today there seems to be a contest in all areas to produce the most incomprehensible manual. Worst are inbuilt manuals where you need a manual but need to hack the device to find the manual.
Also its rare that an inbult manual can be read while trying to follow the instructions!!

Nancy Jorden says:
13 May 2015

I think depending on what you do it would be nice to have a hard copy of the manual. There is a lot of great options to choose from. Sometimes it is nice to have a hard copy to have in your hand. There will be times that you will not have internet access to find what you are looking for. I I hope more people will be able to have more hard copies to have.

Chris says:
1 June 2015

You can take your manuals with you – if you have a smart phone.

I use DropBox, an application on my phone and laptop.
DropBox copies files from a folder on the laptop to the equivanlent folder on my phone (and visa versa.)

Each time I get a new piece of equipment I put a copy of the manual in the DropBox folder.
(Most manuals are available on-line on the manufacturers web site.)
Within minutes it’s on my phone.

New John Lewis own-brand fridge/freezer priced at over £500. Estimated cost of producing the user manual: 2p. Full of typos, nonsenses, and bad translations. Feint grey printing on flimsy paper and poor diagrams. No explanation for two parts that were taped inside the larder compartment and presumably had to be fitted somewhere [possibly spacers to fit on the back but no obvious fixing points]. Very disappointed with John Lewis’s poor effort but literacy and comprehensibility are not their strong points as the product descriptions on their website amply testify.

I have just read an email alerting me to ‘Electrified lighting products’ offered by John Lewis on their website. Absolutely shocking. 🙁

Another curious aspect: You buy a tea towel and they send an e-mail asking you to write a customer feedback review. You buy a major kitchen appliance and they don’t want to know!

FrugalPops says:
25 July 2015

If you are often befuddled by the manual that came with your new technology you are not alone. Some years back a friend and myself considered this problem. We where trying to install a hard drive to a computer system. I had just taught myself how to program in Hexadecimal. I need a way to store my work so I purchased a Hard Drive to was very large 20 Megabytes. This was a lot of years ago and up until then we had been using a tape recorder for program storage. After a few week and more that a few calls to several company’s we got it to work.
After this we sat down to discuss why we had so much trouble understanding he manual that now made perfect since to use. We came to realist the problem is quite simple. The person who wrote the manual wrote it for himself. Therefore only a person who knew what he knew could understand it. That is why authors are making money writing manuals called “For Dummies”. It is not that the end user is a Dummy it is that it is written for people that do not know the product before they read the manual.

I think I’m fairly competent with figuring out technology but the problem I face is when you get more complicated appliances like washing machines with 50 drying modes you have to press through. Then you refer to the manual with the reaction being ???. It should be possible to follow the directions without having done a plumbing or engineering course. My area is computers, not appliances. What happened to:
– If you want to dry clothing step 1. press this (a) if you want this press this first (b) if you want this etc. 2. press this to start.

Sometimes the vague icon-based buttons to make it work in various countries just makes it all the more confusing.

I’d rather be patronised by the instructions than lost in them.

Peter says:
28 February 2016

I have noticed that items like laptops no longer are supplied with paper manuals so you have to switch them on to be told on an on line manual how to unpack and switch it on, a bit late I think!!!